Grisly, Man

The Revenant
(USA, 156 min.)
Dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Writ. Mark L. Smith, Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck
Leonardo DiCaprio stars in The Revenant.
20th Century Fox

There’s a scene in Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man where the eccentric director listens to an audio recording of adventurer Timothy Treadwell being mauled to death by a grizzly bear. Herzog withholds the audio from the film, lets the audience watch his pale and stoic reaction, and then advises a woman never to listen to the recording. It’s one scene among many that helps Grizzly Man re-write documentary form by interpreting a life with cinematic inquisitiveness.

One can’t help but imagine the expression that Herzog might have on his face while watching The Revenant, which features a brutal bear attack in which a mother grizzly almost fatally mauls frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Does Herzog grimace? Smile? Puke? Regardless, the attack is so real and painful that The Revenant sinks the cold teeth of death straight into the viewer and snaps their bones. A flight of Herzogian madness follows the fateful bear attack and what happens after is grisly, man.

The Revenant brings to the screen the story of real-life outdoorsman Hugh Glass in this intense adaptation of the riveting novel The Revenant by Michael Punke. The Revenant is stark, brutal, wild, mad, and terrifying, and it’s a beautiful no-holds-barred western that demands to be seen on the big screen so that audiences may appreciate its hot-blooded revenge odyssey in its most badass form. The film gives DiCaprio a full throttle showcase for his physical capabilities as an actor with a role that one can only compare to Uma Thurman’s wonderfully wrathful blood-spattered bride from Kill Bill. The film puts DiCaprio on an epic quest across the American frontier (played by the snow-laded woods of Alberta) as Glass aims to get revenge on the men in his crew who coldly leave him for dead following his injuries from the aforementioned bear attacked. The film delivers relentless action with palpable bloodlust.

The attack from the bear comes fast and fierce in an impressive feat of VFX coupled with DiCaprio’s bravura performance and convincing blood-curdling screams. He then rests in the care of two men, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, trying another mumble-accent) and teen trapper Bridger (a compelling Will Poulter) when Ashley (Domhnall Gleeson, well-cast), the leader of Glass’s fur trapping expedition, tasks two men with guarding Glass until his expected demise. Fitzgerald, in an act of ruthless cowardice, convinces Bridger to abandon Glass and rob him of the few supplies that will ensure his survival as they flee to avoid detection from the Pawnee tribes circling the area. Glass has extra motivation for his vendetta in the film as the adaptation gives him a son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), whom Fitzgerald coldly kills to ease the escape.

The Revenant lets DiCaprio crawl through the dirt and snow as Glass tracks Fitzgerald and Bridger across an improbable 200-mile trek. The film walks the path of a straightforward revenge drama and it lessens the madness of Glass’s rebirth through retribution to some extent by further legitimizing his thirst for justice following the death of his boy. Punke’s book details an obsessive saga for revenge and a fanatical drive to reclaim stolen property in sparse prose, and this adaptation admirably realizes Glass’s deranged journey through hell and back again thanks to the intensity of DiCaprio’s fully committed performance and to the film’s unparalleled aesthetic.

However, while the adaptation loses the ambiguous element that makes Glass a wild animal, The Revenant looks at the west through the eyes of a man intoxicated with rage and otherworldly drives. The technical scope and complexity of The Revenant astonishes as Birdman director Alejandro G. Iñárritu captures the action of the film with a singular vision. The film contains little dialogue as Glass hobbles towards the inevitable showdown. Whereas the novel finds impeccable depth in the grit of pulp fiction, The Revenant uses the higher power of the film camera to realize a state of madness that is truly awesome. Iñárritu, working again with cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki, envisions the brutality of frontier life with a majestic eye.

The film captures the myth of Manifest Destiny in all of its grisly lunacy as Lubezki’s beautiful and peculiar cinematography, which favours natural light, poetically frames Glass’s vendetta from obscure angles and lets the gruesome violence of the film splash its blood in stark contrast to the pure white snow that offers its setting. The camera acts as an omniscient eye that creeps up and invades space—the image of DiCaprio’s breath fogging a lens is gorgeous—like the all-seeing eye of a God who took Peyote, stripped naked, and ran wild with the wolves because he no longer understands the world he sees. Only the work of Terrence Malick offers a fair point of comparison, largely thanks to Lubezki’s skill behind the camera on The New World and The Tree of Life, and seeing Malick through the guise of Herzogian craziness is bound to thrill serious moviegoers.

Equally thrilling is DiCaprio’s intense performance. The actor gives an ambitious turn as he dares to tell a full story without the aid of words and dialogue. The dramatic drive of The Revenant lives in the physicality of DiCaprio’s performance—Glass’s anger, his will to live, and his unadulterated fury—that evokes the interiority that Punke’s novel bracingly crafts with words. The lore of DiCaprio’s quest for an Oscar seems equally fitting as motivation for Glass as he crawls along the rugged wilderness, but, like his beleaguered frontiersman, he may find justice by committing himself so brazenly to the quest.

The film adds another coup to Iñárritu’s résumé, too, after the artful madness of Birdman’s theatrical flair. The Revenant couldn’t be more different from Birdman, yet it offers a fine marriage for the style of Birdman and the stark miserablism of Iñárritu’s prior works. The scope of the film is sweeping while the artistic efforts, like the evocative cinematography, rugged production design, the gangrenous make-up, and the haunting score all soar high. The Revenant sees the western reborn with full-blooded vision.

The Revenant is now playing in wide release.